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Name Babb, Sanora
Pseudonym
Born / Died 1907–2005
Scope

The Sanora Babb collection includes the manuscript for her memoir An Owl on Every Post (Saturday Review Books, 1970). Also included in the collection is the short piece "Daft," reprinted from Southwest Review (1969), which later became chapter 20 of An Owl on Every Post, as well as the printed version of Babb's "A World of Forms," from The Writer (1973).

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Biography

Described by her friend Ray Bradbury as “a wonderful poet, a good short-story writer and a fine novelist,” Sanora Babb (1907 – 2005) enjoyed one of her biggest successes in her nineties with the publication of Whose Names Are Unknown (University of Oklahoma Press, 2004), a novel about a Depression-era farm family in Oklahoma and the migrant worker camps of California. Set to be published in the late 1930s, Babb’s work was shelved after the publication and success of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath .

Babb was born on April 21, 1907 on an Otoe Indian Community in Oklahoma to itinerant farmer Walter Babb and his wife, the former Jennie Parks. The family moved around the newly admitted 46th state before eventually settling in Colorado where Babb’s grandfather had a homestead. Living in a one-room dugout, the Babb family suffered numerous hardships including a stillbirth and repeated crop failures. Babb’s grandfather taught her to read, and when she finally attended a formal school in 1918, she managed to hold her own, even graduating as valedictorian of her high school class.

After graduation, Babb worked as a journalist eventually landing with the Associated Press. She moved to Southern California in 1929 after being offered a position with the Los Angeles Times, but when the stock market crashed the offer was rescinded. Over the next decade, Babb was broke and homeless, often spending evenings sleeping outdoors in Lafayette Park.

Eventually, Babb managed to find employment as a radio scriptwriter and she began contributing poetry and short stories to various literary magazines. In addition to Bradbury, her circle of acquaintances included William Saroyan, John Sanford, and Ralph Ellison. Babb joined the Communist Party and traveled to the Soviet Union in the mid-1930s and reported on Spanish Civil War for the British periodical This Week . When she returned to California in 1938, she worked for the Farm Security Administration as assistant to manager Tom Collins.

Around this time, Babb had begun making notes for a novel about a farm family that traveled from Oklahoma to California. She also worked setting up temporary housing communities and organizing protests, and she kept records of those experiences as well. Whether or not John Steinbeck ever had access to her work is a matter of debate, but Babb did meet with the author when he visited Southern California. Babb submitted a few chapters to Random House and editor Bennett Cerf was so impressed he brought her to New York City so she could complete work on her novel. In August 1939, Steinbeck published The Grapes of Wrath to great acclaim and Random House shelved her novel.

Returning to California, Babb worked at Clipper magazine, which published works by Bradbury and B. Traven, among others. Just before the outbreak of World War II, she was offered a screen test by MGM but nothing came of it. Babb also had a chance meeting with the man she would later marry, noted cinematographer James Wong Howe. The pair first met at a local bookstore and soon began dating, despite state laws that banned interracial relationships. For much of the 1940s, Babb managed a Chinese restaurant in North Hollywood owned by Howe while he built his career. The couple eventually married on September 16, 1949, although it reportedly took them three days to find a judge who would perform the ceremony.

The following year, at the height of the investigations by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), Babb retreated to Mexico where she began writing what became her first published novel, The Lost Traveler (Reynal, 1958). Throughout the early 50s, she continued to contribute short stories and poems to various publications, including Redbook, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and Seventeen, as well as more “literary” journals like Antioch Review and Prairie Schooner . Around the time of her novel’s publication, Babb also began teaching creative writing at the UCLA Extension School.

In 1970, she published a memoir, An Owl on Every Post (Saturday Review Press), which earned praise. Among her other works were a collection of her short stories, Cry of the Tinamou (University of Nebraska Press, 1997), and a collection of poems, Told in the Seed (West End Press, 1998). But it was the belated publication of Whose Names Are Unknown that brought her the most acclaim of her long career.

Babb, who was widowed in 1976, died of natural causes at her home in Hollywood Hills, California on December 31, 2005 at the age of 98.

Library of Congress Subject Headings Women authors, American.
Fiction.
American literature -- 20th century.
American literature -- Women authors.

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